Kickass, the doorstop dog, turns it over to the keeper today with the admonition to respect brevity, which will certainly be ignored.
I’m not sure why it is essential to my well-being to periodically head north and stumble over my roots, but it is, and part of the most recent trek was breakfast with a brother and his wife who live on part of the home farm up on the edge of the big woods. Orville made waffles and fried bacon as Shirley observed and commented on, among other things, just how she feels about her fight—the third, against cancer, the first of which many years ago left her dealing with the after effects of a colostomy. She said she had occasion recently to tell a similarly afflicted man that it was time for him to get on with his life because it wasn’t over just because of a little inconvenience.
Over coffee, I could glance out the windows and see the places where my barefoot brain cavorted through the green pastures of childhood and came to recognize just a few of the cracks and holes in the great wall of life. And, of course, it was where I learned the awesome actual secret of life–it goes from one generation to the next by dint of passionate bulls and boars and rams and……oh, god, men! The awesome burden of actually seeing to it that there is a next generation falls, of course, to the females and Orv and I talked briefly about the unbelievable challenges our mother faced on a primitive farm as she guided us through puppyhood!
After the coffee, Orv and I climbed into his 1937 Chevy sedan—one like our father once owned, and that Orv has lovingly restored, and he drove us through the old neighborhood–two old men in an old car on old country roads commenting on old neighbors long gone; and just wallowing in the memories, particularly when passing by such places as the location of the country school we attended, now marked only by an off color green patch in a farmer’s field. Oh, where are you Rachel Kolb and Leila Skinner and Alice Hanson and……? And we did walk/bike a mile and a half to school, even on snowy, sub zero days. So there, you doubting grandbabies and citified friends!
The home farm is now covered with the trees that Orv planted years ago and it is thick with pine and brush and weeds. The land’s character has been transformed from one of disciplined fences and fields to one of wild unpredictable growth. It was seemingly an inevitable transition, and the brief interlude of struggling that we were a part of to tame the rocky hills would be embarrassing to remember except that now as two old men we recognize the temporary nature of everything.
Not all that far north of the farm is the Chequamegon National Forest which has always been a spiritual refuge of sorts for me. To wander its sprawling wilderness is as much therapy as I have ever needed, even in some dark times. To come to it now with no bigger ambition than to sift through a bit of time, and to then suddenly be enveloped in the seasonal rainbow of tamarack and popple and hardwood along the twisting forest roads, that is finding the elusive pot of personal gold. And having found it the urgency of the eternal quest is blunted.
At the end of one of those roads was a lake, glistening in the afternoon sun in a way that made it seem as if you could pluck out the diamond days of the past summer and squeeze some more preciousness out of them. There were no boats, no cottages, nobody, nothing but a simple dock where you could launch a canoe or soak a night-crawler. It was a Chequamegon place, a place to have all to yourself, to stop, to just sit and let the moments and the hours slip past with no more accountability than a country-school recess of long ago.
If you had to do something, you could sit on the deserted dock and read a book. One had been left in my camper by granddaughter Sarah—“Animal Farm,” and so there were a couple of hours of getting reacquainted with Napoleon and the rest of the pigs as they took over the farm and in the end came to resemble people so much they could not be told from them. If you have to have company Orwell isn’t bad, though you would swear he published his classic yesterday instead of in 1946.
Then there was a night there on the wilderness lake so dark and full of stars that it was like a stage setting for the greatest drama on earth—which was, of course, the sacred dark time of the diurnal cycle when the deer and the wolves and the bear go about their business as quietly as woods mice. No howling. No squeaking. No yipping. Just a faint sighing of night breezes blowing soft kisses at the incredible invisible harmony of it all. To be there, to sense that you are as much a part of it–but no more important than the black deer droppings along a muddy trail, that was the priceless ticket to the grand show.
The next day was one of aimlessly meandering the forest roads, admiring the brilliance of the ridges between the tamarack swamps, and stopping occasionally to walk a trail down and into some of those swamps. This is where I could embrace the grand recycling with something akin to religious fervor, though fervor is probably not the right way to describe the ultimate personal transition. The tamarack swamps are carpeted with deep, green soft moss in pillow-like mounds that with their oleos of lush life are the antithesis of death beds, and if the creationists want to call such places God’s mattress I’m okay with that so long as they don’t insist on holiness and exclusivity.
So the Chequamegon is having its way with what passes for a thought process, and it is flushing out detritus and making room for what comes next, a surprise maybe, like rounding the trail bend and a grouse doing its explosive launch and sailing off unscathed as most of them have through a lifetime spent in the company of rambunctious spaniels and raucous hunting friends. They are all gone too, of course, the dogs and the pals. But they come back now for sniffing and guffawing visits that are like little love sighs from conspiring lungs. The heft of the shotgun is the only remnant of those halcyon days. It seems unnaturally heavy and even, in a way, obscene: would I use it to kill one of those wonderful wild birds that are as at home in the Chequamegon as chickens in a poultry yard?
Oh, my old reflexes would make me try. But I would miss and the bird would sail off like a feathered bullet, and my muttered curse would lack the sincerity of similar past encounters when killing loomed much larger as a measure of hunting success. It would be more like an observation: “God-damn, that was a nice thing to see.”
The Ashland campsite, with the magnificently indifferent water of Lake Superior lapping at the shore just yards away, has to be one of the finest places in the entire world to watch the sun go down and to spend a night contemplating your fragility. The Lake lies sleeping like a great satiated beast, approachable, even inviting. A couple of small boats head for the dock in the fading light, and a gaggle ot Canada geese do a paddling, gossiping stroll along the shore. But come November, the snoozing beast will rise up—it always does, and if you do not hold it in the utmost respect, it will devour you like so much algae. It once slapped down my arrogance and scared the hell out of me when I didn’t show proper respect for a brewing summer thunderstorm while out fishing on a small inflatable device. It was something to think about as the stars built a rare ceiling of infinity. Sing it in my dreams, Gordon Lightfoot!
There was more backwoods roaming and trail meandering through the next day. Leg muscles got into the spirit of things for a long time, but as the hours passed and the steps counted up, old joints and sinew sent a message: “Are you trying to prove some dumb thing here? Isn’t it about time for you to give us a barstool break or better yet a long session in a soft, lean-back chair? Since the sun was shining, there was little risk in stepping off a trail and just heading through the woods in the direction of the camper, though a couple of times it seemed as if my solar compass was fooling with me. Each time, however, as the legs kept up their abuse mantra, the road would emerge out of the wild land and the soft seat of the camper made the barstool a moot destination.
On one of those aimless wanderings the thick young undergrowth was like weeds at the roots of a scattering of huge white pine. The pine stood in solitary majesty, their trunks lifting needle-laden branches so high they seemed to brush the clouds. There was a bit of ritual then, as there always is when white pine take over the scene. I must stand and gaze up like a transfixed chicken, marveling at the grandeur of the great plant before me and reviewing once again its historic significance to the place of my roots. The oldest white pine stumps bring on the same spiritual machinations, sometimes with more impact. There were several of those in the pasture where I once walked the winding paths to bring the cows in for milking. At the time the huge gray spider-like remnants were only a fleeting curiosity but they obviously planted white pine seeds on my psyche and they grew deep tap roots. Now beside the Chequamegon trail one of those old white pine stumps stuck its decaying remains up out of the green ferns and called for a brief bow to the symbols of my tree-centered religion. No “body and blood” symbolic ritual with the masses, just a simple pause in the woods to show respect for an ultimate keeper of realistic time.
The trail wound up over a gentle slope and then along another tamarack swamp and back up to higher ground where young popple grew as thick as whiskers and advertised the possibility of bud-eating grouse. There were none, but there was another stump, this one a cutover model that lacked majesty but had a flat, moss-covered top just the right height to become a chair—a throne perhaps, for a seeker of royal time. So there was a place and a time to sit, to rest old joints and muscles in the waning sunshine of a golden afternoon. It was no small thing, this stump- sitting there in the middle of the Chequamegon. It may have started that way—just an old guy taking a break, but something happened to it: it grew like something spilled, like a whisper that becomes a roaring cheer, like a vague sense of belonging but not belonging. So, with this natural vitality all around, this harmonious blend of life that now in its decent to a seasonal respite with its wholesale signal of cycles and endings, is there something within it that previews a little death? Nobody has ever given a verifiable report of what it is like from the inside. Could a diseased old heart just flat out stop and strand its rickety container on a moss-capped stump in the woods? Why not? Maybe it has already happened.
But if I am dead, would I hear the ravens? The great birds of the wilderness gurgle and squawk from one of the big pine trees and the momentary excess of mental machinations bottoms out like an old Chevy hitting a pothole. A certain reverie is within the purview of the senior seniors, and if it flirts with absurdity, that is nobody’s business but theirs.
Lord, lord, I do love the sound of ravens. So I sit there and listen to them, and I think that if for any reason I should ever sing or gurgle of squawk, I hope it sounds like the joyous cacophony of those big black birds.